Com­pa­nies are in­creas­ingly adopt­ing flex­i­ble work­places to at­tract top tal­ent, and it’s to the ben­e­fit of all em­ploy­ees

Alberta Venture - - The Strategy Session - BY EL­IZ­A­BETH HAMES IL­LUS­TRA­TION MOLLY LIT­TLE

On any given day, Dan Evans can walk through the cor­ri­dors of his Cal­gary-based cre­ative agency, Evans Hunt, and strug­gle to find some­one – any­one – toil­ing away at their desk. A scene like that would freak out a lot of man­agers, but that’s ex­actly the way Evans likes it.

Evans Hunt is one of a grow­ing num­ber of com­pa­nies un­chain­ing work­ers from their desks. Known as “flex­i­ble work­places,” ar­range­ments range from al­low­ing an em­ployee to work from a board­room or com­mon area in­stead of their desk to giv­ing staff the op­tion of choos­ing where, when and how they work. Evans Hunt has opted for the lat­ter. That means some days the of­fice looks more like a ghost town be­cause the ma­jor­ity of its em­ploy­ees are work­ing from home, a coffee shop, a plane – any­where but their desk.

Pro­po­nents of flex­i­ble work­places say it not only re­duces real es­tate costs (fewer in-of­fice work­ers means smaller of­fices), but it makes for a hap­pier, more en­gaged work­force all around. A re­cent study by WORKshift, a not-for-profit ded­i­cated to work­place trans­for­ma­tion, found that the abil­ity to work flex­i­ble hours in­creases em­ployee en­gage­ment 89 per cent.

While it may be nice to turn your of­fice into the Merry Old Land of Oz, what’s in it for the em­ployer? For starters, it takes em­ploy­ees out of their cu­bi­cles. A mis­guided (I think it’s fair to say) Robert Propst in­vented the of­fice cu­bi­cle – which he called the Ac­tion Of­fice II – in the 1960s as an an­swer to the pre­dom­i­nant open-of­fice con­cept of the time. He said that the chaotic open of­fice “saps vi­tal­ity, blocks tal­ent, frus­trates ac­com­plish­ment” and leads to “un­ful­filled in­ten­tions and failed ef­fort.” Lit­tle did he know that, a half cen­tury later, his words would bet­ter de­scribe his own mis­be­got­ten cre­ation (al­though, to be fair to Propst, he crit­i­cized the per­ver­sions that be­fell the Ac­tion Of­fice II due to cor­po­rate cost-cut­ting). It turns out that the pro­duc­tiv­ity of em­ploy­ees who are con­fined to a three- square-me­tre grey box all day is stymied. Who’d have thunk it?

Even with­out flex­i­ble work­places, em­ploy­ees have found ways to get around the op­pres­sive na­ture of their Ac­tion Of­fice IIs by ei­ther tak­ing over a board room or tak­ing their work with them on a lunch break or at the end of the day. “We’ve cre­ated work spa­ces that are not re­flect­ing the way peo­ple are ac­tu­ally work­ing in the of­fice,” says Robyn Bews, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of WORKshift. “If you ask peo­ple where they get their most pro­duc­tive work done, many times you won’t get a ‘ from my as­signed cu­bi­cle’ an­swer.”

So em­ploy­ers who adopt flex­i­ble work­places are not only get­ting hap­pier em­ploy­ees, they’re get­ting more out of them. But the ben­e­fits to the em­ployer don’t stop there. Flex­i­ble work­places are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly im­por­tant to at­tract­ing and main­tain­ing top tal­ent. “What I’m hear­ing from a num­ber of or­ga­ni­za­tions is, ‘We rec­og­nize that this is be­com­ing a ta­ble stakes con­ver­sa­tion for at­tract­ing and re­tain­ing em­ploy­ees,’ ” Bews says.

That’s cer­tainly true for Evans Hunt. The agency re­al­ized that po­ten­tial em­ploy­ees, es­pe­cially those work­ing in cre­ative in­dus­tries, have dif­fer­ent ex­pec­ta­tions about how they want to work. So they adopted a flex­i­ble work­place to en­sure that peo­ple feel like they’re get­ting a lot more from the work en­vi­ron­ment than just their take-home pay. That change in at­ti­tude opened the door to a flood of tal­ent that would be un­avail­able to a com­pany with a strict 9:00 to 5:00, Mon­day to Fri­day pol­icy. “We have a lot of peo­ple here who pre­vi­ously might have pre­ferred to be free­lancers be­cause they can man­age their own sched­ule,” Evans says. “[Peo­ple] who are tal­ented but now they’re com­fort­able work­ing in a group en­vi­ron­ment.”

The ben­e­fits of flex­i­ble work­places ex­tend to all cor­ners of the or­ga­ni­za­tion. So why aren’t com­pa­nies jump­ing on the band­wagon like

Good man­age­ment skills ap­ply whether peo­ple are sit­ting be­side you or whether they’re work­ing from home.

Van­cou­verites in play­off sea­son? Fear. When your em­ploy­ees are spread out all over the city – and in some cases, dif­fer­ent cities – it can be dif­fi­cult to keep tabs on them to en­sure they’re not wast­ing pre­cious paid time shar­ing cat videos on Face­book. But if you’re a good man­ager, you can fig­ure it out.

“For me per­son­ally, if I hear a man­ager say, ‘How do I know when an em­ployee’s work­ing if I can’t see them?’ it’s kind of a sign to me that they don’t have the skills they need to man­age peo­ple in gen­eral,” Bews says. “Be­cause be­ing able to see some­body sit­ting at their desk tells me noth­ing about what they’re ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing.”

In­stead, mea­sure your em­ployee’s per­for­mance on their out­put, not how long they’re sit­ting at their desk. Com­mu­ni­cate with them reg­u­larly to make sure they have enough to do, or that they’re not tak­ing on too much, and trust that they’re do­ing the job you hired them to do. “To make a flex­i­ble work en­vi­ron­ment work, the ab­so­lute num­ber one in­gre­di­ent you need is trust,” Evans says. “Even if five per cent of the staff are abus­ing [the flex­i­ble work­place ar­range­ment], 95 per cent of the staff are feel- ing com­pletely em­pow­ered by it.”

But maybe you have trust is­sues. Don’t fret. With the In­ter­net and smart­phones, there are about a mil­lion ways to stay in touch with, and keep tabs on, your team. “Equip­ping a re­mote worker to be fully pro­duc­tive and con­nected to their team has never been eas­ier,” says Ron McKen­zie, se­nior vice-pres­i­dent of busi­ness at Shaw Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

One of th­ese is Shaw’s SmartVoice, which en­ables em­ploy­ers to keep in touch with their re­mote work­ers via phone, video con­fer­ence, in­stant mes­sag­ing or even shared desk­tops. Not only that, SmartVoice’s pres­ence fea­ture al­lows you to see what your em­ploy­ees are up to, even when they’re out of the of­fice. “If you are in the of­fice you might be able to see that an­other team mem­ber is on the phone – so you won’t try to en­gage in a con­ver­sa­tion,” McKen­zie says. “But if you are work­ing re­motely you can’t walk by their desk – with SmartVoice and Pres­ence you can see their sta­tus is set to ‘on the phone.’ ”

SmartVoice is even avail­able for smart phones, so you can keep in touch with work­ers when they’re on the go. Evans says Evans Hunt of­ten takes ad­van­tage of the fact that peo­ple live on their smart­phones th­ese days, so he knows he can reach em­ploy­ees in the evening if he needs to.

But even with all the tech­nol­ogy avail­able to him, Evans still feels a pang of anx­i­ety when he’s search­ing for some­one in a spe­cific depart­ment and no one is at their desk. “I might ask my­self, ‘Is ev­ery­body re­ally at home work­ing, or are they do­ing other things?’ ” says Evans. But he has a quick and easy way to solve that mys­tery: his smart phone.

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